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Saturday, March 19, 2011

Kindle series No. 6: Readers of my column weigh in on their own Kindle experiences

 The only reasonable answer to everyone's theoretical objections is: So what?
If you acquire one and like it, their objections will seem silly.

December 1, 2010

By Hugh Gilmore

            My recent four-part series on Kindles elicited more reactions than any topic I've written about in this "Enemies of Reading" column. Apparently many people are standing with their noses pressed against that window, wondering if they should go in and buy one.

            One gentleman, who wishes to remain anonymous, wrote to say, "Actually, both my daughter (14) and my father (87) have Kindles. She taught him how to use his."  

            With Dad's permission I wrote the young lady, who consented to answer some of my questions. She told me she received the Kindle as a birthday present and has been using it happily for a year-and-a-half now. I asked her how she uses it.

            "Mainly I use it for my own reading, but I sometimes use it for school reading because I can highlight sections of text and add notes right in the book, which is helpful. I also use the dictionary on it, and occasionally check my email on it. "
            I asked her if it affected her reading habits, and she said, "I honestly think that I read more with the Kindle. I really like how convenient it is because I can go on my Kindle to the Kindle Store, and have a new book in less than a minute, as opposed to having to drive to a bookstore when I can find the time. The Kindle Store recommends books for you based on the ones you've already bought, so I now tend to read more from one author that I'm liking or on one subject matter. I do think I spend more time reading on it because it's so easy to travel with, and take with me anywhere."
            And does she have anything to say about the Big Question: How does Kindle reading compare with holding an actual book in your hand?
       "At first I thought it was kind of odd, but now I'm used to it, and like it better. I don't have to worry about losing my page, and I can navigate through the book more easily. I also like that you can look up words, highlight sections and add your own notes while reading." 
            Does this mark the death of the printed book? "No," she said, "A lot of people think that when you get a Kindle you're suddenly boycotting all print books, but I do still buy print copies of books fairly often, and I still like to do that."
            As for my correspondent's 87-year-old father, "My father, who lives in Newtown Square, likes it because it is light, and the font is adjustable. Instead of packing 20 pounds of books for a trip, he can load them on the Kindle and also get the Inquirer and WSJ wherever he is."

            I also received a nice e-mail from Carol Rauch of Chestnut Hill, offering to lend me her Kindle. Carol is the author and illustrator of "The Artful Bouvier," a charmingly witty book about Bouviers (the dogs, not the Jackie O family) that would make a great holiday gift. (Google the title and you'll find out how to order the book.) Carol wrote, "I’m 65. I love real books more, but I love my Kindle for many many reasons."
            For example? "About 80% of my reading is on the Kindle. I find it very convenient and love it for travel. If I’m in the middle of a book I am not crazy about, I can easily “pick up another." I love the ease of ordering a new book, especially when I can go to my computer and shop around and read reviews and then buy with one click. The only time I am frustrated by the Kindle is when I read a book for discussion in our book group, because I can’t thumb back to a page or a paragraph. Even though I can mark those on the Kindle, the access to them is not really compatible with live discussion. I’ve heard others say the same thing."

            In the meantime, at my wife's French reading group meeting recently, at Thanksgiving dinner, and at a planning meeting of the Chestnut Hill Book Festival, all the old familiar concerns arose: Kindles et.al. look different, sound different, feel different, even smell and taste different (to us page-corner nibblers) than books.
            To which the only reasonable answer is: So what? If you acquire one and like it, these objections will seem silly.
            Ah, but there is one more question. It came up the other night when I ran into Professor Moylan Mills during intermission at Stagecrafters excellent new production of "Last Night at the Ballyhoo" this weekend.
            Dr. Mills is on my intellectual All Star team. He's Professor Emeritus of what I call "Just About Everything I Like" (Literature/art/film/theater/music/opera) at Penn State, Abington. He told me he read my Kindle series and said he's ready to buy an electronic reading device. But which kind, he wondered? Amazon has the Kindle. Apple offers the iPad. Barnes and Noble: The Nook. Borders has The Kobo. There are also a few generic gadgets being marketed.
            I confessed that I'm buying a Kindle because my mind is boggled. I spent three years comparison-shopping before impulsively buying a flat-screen television. And I was almost the last person I know to buy a cell phone. This time I'm assuming that no matter what I buy, some other gadget will have a better feature, but will, in turn, lack something my new toy has. And within two years, all of this year's models will be outmoded.

           I'm getting on the train right here and now and going 'round the learning curve.     

Kindle series No. 5: Kindle Test Drive results -- Just in!

You read each book through the same small window in the wall.

November 24, 2010  
By Hugh Gilmore

I wanted to test drive a Kindle, an electronic book reader, to see if it would boost my reading habits in any way. A friend loaned me one on a Friday night and I brought it home. It curiously excited me, a new toy I couldn't wait to play with, but I was near the end of a hardback "print book" I'd previously started and felt I should finish that first. I hurried through the final chapters that night. I was acutely aware the whole time of the Kindle lying on the table beside me, fairly glowing, the way great jewels do in the movies -- you know, the close-up shot in the museum, with soft spotlights illuminating the emerald, just before the glass case is smashed and the great heist begins.
            On Saturday night I took up the Kindle. I had already decided to be a crank and test the Kindle with what I prejudicially hoped would make the Kindle fail: I would download a richly complex novel, one of the best ever written, "Madame Bovary."
            I pushed three buttons to get to the "Kindle Store," then scrolled down to the "Search" space, typed in the title, pushed the command button and waited. Five different versions appeared as choices. I selected one for 99 cents and pushed the "Buy" button. (An Amazon account had already been set up by the gent who loaned me his Kindle.) Within 90 seconds, "Madame Bovary" was available for reading.
            No matter who you are or how resistant you feel, the download speed is impressive. You're waiting your turn in the dentist's office, riding the commuter train, or stuck up in a tree while the flood waters rage below, and bingo! you can push a button and have Tom Clancy, Nora Ephron, or Mark Twain keep you company. Or, in the case of Bill Hord of Ambler, who loves sailing: he dials up a book on his iPad while he sails in the Caribbean. Just pulls up leeward, drops anchor, and reads.
            One of the most frequently asked questions: Do you need a computer to use a Kindle? The answer is: No. It is completely wireless. The only time you plug something in is when you want to recharge the battery. Each charge is good for about 18 hours.
            The Kindle is not a book, and no one is saying it is. It is a piece of plastic. If you don't like the feel of the plastic, you can buy a cover that hooks up to the device and both protects it and makes it feel more pleasantly tactile.
            The device is light, easily held in one hand, and easy on the eye. There is no harsh glare. The font size is adjustable. The words are displayed in letters composed of "electronic ink." You need ambient light. You cannot use it in the dark, though I believe some other devices now allow you to do so.
            I knew when I began reading "Madame Bovary" on the Kindle that I'd come up against some distracting and annoying differences between a Kindle and a book. However, I was determined to keep reading until I overcame them enough that the physical operation of the device could be done automatically. Like riding a bicycle.

            To read, one advances each "page" by pushing the "Next Page" button. At first, my eyes swept over the last few words of a screen and "Next Paged" too soon, or not soon enough, and for a microsecond the magical rhythm of reading a book hiccupped. As soon as I got into my own rhythm (and stopped reaching to the top right-hand corner of the Kindle, as though to turn a page) it stopped being a problem.
            The appearance of the "page" of the Kindle varies with the size of the font and the design of the book you are reading. "Madame Bovary" was laid out at an average of 7 words per line/14 lines per page. That's two glances per line for me, a strange new rhythm, and a total of about 100 words per page. It took 20 seconds or so to read a page, about 3 pages per minute.
            I didn't like reading a book that had no page numbers, though that's probably just an older person's custom and complaint. It's disconcerting, though. I remember reading a biography of Babe Ruth (by Leigh Montville) and suddenly feeling sad because I knew, but The Babe didn't, that he only had about a half-inch to live.
            You won't get that with the Kindle. Its weight doesn't change; its balance doesn't shift as you advance. A small number at the bottom of the screen tells you what percentage of the book you've read. Two days into "Madame Bovary," a friend asked me how far into it I'd gotten. I said, "I'm about thirty-eight percent of the way." He said, "That's an odd way to put it."
            I know. I got curious and found out that a one-percentage-point change for "Madame Bovary" required 12 clicks. My next Kindle read, "American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House," by Jon Meacham (2010), required 20 clicks to move the percentage indicator. If you're keeping track while you read, it's tedious and seems to take forever.
            You also, at least with the Kindle 2 version I used, can't suddenly switch back to an earlier section of the book, say, the map on page 22 or the description of the waterfall on page 112, that kind of thing. You can go back, but it takes a few clicks and feels constraining.
            By the third night of Kindling I was so comfortable with this mode of reading that the entire controversy seemed trivial and pointless to me. Nothing will ever replace the comfort, joy, and tactile appeal, ever the smell, of printed books. But they're not the only way to read, nor necessarily the most comfortable or efficient. I went on to read two more long books -- the Andrew Jackson biography previously mentioned and "Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition," by Daniel Okrent (2010), another American history book. 
            For three weeks, then, I read only on a Kindle and read what would be well over a thousand printed pages. I enjoyed it. In fact, I started dreading having to give it back to its owner. I got very caught up in the process of reading that way. Like eating potato chips, as they say, as soon as I finished one title I wanted to browse, download, and start reading another.
            But by then it was time to perform Part Two of the experiment: pick up a hardback book and see how that felt after my trip to La-La Land. I chose the large, heavy, long novel about the Vietnam War, "Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War," by Karl Marlantes (2010), (Urged on me with high praise by steadfast correspondent Joe Ferry of Oreland).
            And, my goodness, I never appreciated so much before how much a book's physical dimensions affect my reading experience -- its thickness, its weight, the cover design, and, surprisingly, the sound of a book. They're really quite noisy, in a delightful way, and soothing. I just loved the feeling and whispery sound of my fingers brushing each new page.
            Unlike a book, the Kindle's physical dimensions or textures never change. You read each book through the same small window in the wall. The same plastic ivory-colored frame surrounds each presentation. In a way, reading three long books in a row on the Kindle condensed them into one long unibook.
            And the two-page spread of the "Matterhorn" book (two full pages, each 35 lines-per-page, about 14 words-per-line or close to 1000 words to read with each turn of the page) seemed vast and somewhat daunting. 
            The Kindle experience feels more like watching a movie shot entirely in close-ups. But, for a guy who would read cereal-box ads if he didn't have a book, the Kindle will do for many situations. The most frequently mentioned Kindle advantage is that it's like taking dozens of books on vacation with you while taking up only the space of a paperback. You can also subscribe to newspapers and magazines and read them on a Kindle.
            Be warned, though, the Kindle does not come with books included, no more than a DVD player comes with movies included. Thousands can be downloaded for free, but most others cost between 10 and 15 dollars. A child would need a budget. I still plan on using the Free Library for most of the books I'll probably read only once. And I, for one, do not consider Kindle books to be cheap. Half off a $35.00 book is still expensive when I know I can go to our nearby Harvest Books or Walk A Crooked Mile Books and buy them gently used for $2.00.  
            Yes, I'm buying one. Probably the cheaper $139.00 version since I don't plan on downloading hundreds of books and will never make it my primary reading method. But I see its uses and would ask for one as a gift, or give one as a gift to someone who reads a lot, or whom I wanted to encourage to read more.

Kindle series No. 4: Close-minded "Book Lovers"

Readers associate the physical object they hold in their hands with the pleasure
they derive from its contents ...
November 17, 2010  
  By Hugh Gilmore

            In the past few weeks I've tried to tell "book lovers" about my test-driving a borrowed Kindle. I've met a lot of resistance from defenders of The Book whose minds are closed, absolutely closed, to the idea of electronic books. They didn't even show curiosity about how the device works or why millions of readers have bought Kindles in the past two years.
            Just last week the New York Times announced that it will begin listing e-book Best Sellers early in 2011.  Nevermind. The book defenders I met chanted the same mantra, "Me, I love books. I love the feel of them. I just love opening up a book and immersing myself in a good story. No Kindle for me." 
            I'm here to tell you, gentle reader, of how I, a lifelong lover of books and reading, a person with a large, beloved collection of books, a person who makes his living buying and selling old books, a person committed to saving old, neglected books from the dump heap, a person who gives away thousands of books every year, a person who was a founding member of the Chestnut Hill Book Festival, and a person who has written almost weekly in this column about the pleasures of books (and "The Enemies of Reading"), I, dear reader, have actually tried a Kindle. And lived to tell the tale.
            But first: on the issue of "book love." Readers associate the physical object they hold in their hands with the pleasure they derive from its contents. They say they "love" their books as a result. Probably true, but this has nothing to do with the nature of paper, cardboard and ink. A blank book does not provoke love. The reader's love is derived from habit and association. People love both the message and the medium that brought it to them. In time, they would love any medium. Kindle people now say they "love" their Kindle, for example, even though its plastic case is hard and neither fragrant nor yielding, like a book.
Some perspective:  In the 1850's, the French writer Gustave Flaubert dipped a quill into his inkwell more than a hundred thousand times and scratched out over 170,000 words on hundreds of sheets of paper. Afterwards, he took "Madame Bovary," to a printer who created pieces of metal type to correspond with the letters of Flaubert's words. Each resulting tray of type corresponded to a page. Coated with liquid ink, the type was pressed onto sheets of paper that were bound into a magazine, Revue de Paris. This journal was sold in monthly installments during the year 1856. People liked it.
            The following year those same words were recast in a different format -- still ink pressed on paper pages, but different-sized pages, bound together inside cloth-covered cardboard covers -- what we English speakers call a "book." 
             Books have persisted for more than two thousand years as the best devices for relaying a writer's words to other people. The personal reading book, especially for stories, has been made smaller, lighter, and cheaper, making it more available and easier to use. No other energy than light is needed to use one. Nothing needs to be plugged in.
            One can hold the device and see the inked words -- usually black type against a white piece of paper  -- and decode the various marks ("letters"/"words") in a process called "reading." A person who knows how to read (i.e. decode arbitrarily symbolic marks) can know what another person had to "say," even when the speaker is not present.             
            A great invention. Very convenient, but not without its flaws.
            What if a device appeared that was extremely easy to hold, weighed less than a paperback, didn't require you to use force to keep it open, had an easily read surface (on which you could change font size at will) and needed only a small thumb-press to "turn" the pages? Would you turn it down without trying it?
            And suppose you just finished a book by John Steinbeck, or Ann Tyler, or Stephanie Meyer, and hungered to read another one by that author? Or wanted to read a biography of Babe Ruth or Amelia Earhart, but didn't have one in your home library? Would you rather wait for the weekend so you could drive to a bookstore, or push a few buttons on a device that allowed you to start reading that book in about ninety seconds? No wires, either.  
            And what if you learned that, on average, authors are paid higher royalties for the "e-versions" of their books? And trees aren't pulped to make paper to print symbols on?
            If electronic books are "fads," they're fads in the sense that automobiles were fads back in 1910.
            Next week's column will describe in detail what I liked and disliked about the actual process of reading a book on a Kindle.


Kindle Series No. 3: A Family Fable, wrought from a week spent reading from a borrowed Kindle

Once in a while, though, you'll sigh and say aloud that you miss
the feel of handling three-dimensional vegetables and meat ...
November 10, 2010  

By Hugh Gilmore

             I imagine that some night in the future a hungry person will be able to sit down at the dinner table before an empty plate. He'll pick up an electronic FSD (Food Summoning Device), press a few buttons, and, voilĂ !: a delicious, steaming hot, perfectly spiced, Chilean sea bass with fragrant rice and baby asparagus will appear. Warm rolls, too, butter if needed, and a nice warm slice of apple pie. Yummy.
             On other nights, perhaps, roast beef, chicken, soyburgers, hotdogs, whatever your little heart desires. Just have the purveyor of your choice beam it to you. There'll be menus, choices of ethnicity, formal vs. informal dining, and snack foods too. You'll be billed each time you download, or monthly, via a charge against your account.
            The food will taste good after the initial kinks have been eliminated from the system. After a while, it will taste as good as anything you ever remember eating. And it will be filling. And nutritious. You can even order extra, so there's some for lunch tomorrow.
            Once in a while, though, you'll sigh and say aloud that you miss the feel of handling three-dimensional vegetables and meats. The children will roll their eyes to say, "Not again," and keep eating, hoping the subject of homework does not come up. (There will always be homework; the dinner table will always be the play-at-home version of the Inquisition.)
            "No," you'll say, "you don't understand." And once again you'll speak wistfully of those days of your childhood and young adulthood when people had kitchens. (The space in modern homes will have been given over to what is called the "Wii family fun room." Like home treadmills and hot tubs, they'll typically be abandoned after the second week of use.)
            "Why back then, there was a neat "crunch" as you sliced carrots or potatoes. And peas snapping: what a nifty sound!" The kids will say nothing. Silence gives consent, so you'll go on. "You'd crush a clove of garlic and the pungent smell would rush up into your nostrils. Oh boy, you kids would've loved the smell of garlic cooking. You'd walk into the kitchen, and what a rush ... your appetite would rise out of nowhere. You couldn't wait to eat. But you'd have to. It took time, maybe a half hour or hour, or even more. And all that time, the house would fill up with the delicious aroma of the meal you'd be eating."
            "Sounds gross," little Emma will say.
            "Believe me, it was great," you'll counter. "Sometimes the heat from the stove and oven would fill up the kitchen. The windows would steam. The smell of baking bread was unforgettable. You never get over it."
            Little Willie, who shows an aptitude for kelketronic symbionization, and may even major in it some day, will say, "What's wrong with the food we're eating? I read on my Daily Retina Feed that a person could not tell in several blind taste tests the difference between a TPM (Traditionally Prepared Meal) and a Beam-transmitted meal."
            "I know. I know," you'll say, "I saw the same retina feeds."
            Emma will add, "Well why are you two always going on about TPMs" ?
            "I don't know, my little plutonium, it's just that fembreeder and I ... we feel there's something missing."
            "Well it all sounds very vague," she'll say.
            "And inefficient," chimes in Willie.
            "Yeah, well ..." you'll say, and let it rest. You'll keep chewing and enjoying one of the best-tasting meals you've had lately, sorry you didn't start ordering sooner from this purveyor your friends told you to dial up. Still, you'll need to suppress another sigh. The food's good, you'll think, but emotionally there's something missing.
            Later that night, you'll lie in your Sleep Enhancing Platform, staring up at the Night Sky Simulation wondering why this is such an issue lately. You'll turn to your Child Rearing Partner and say, "Hey hon?"
            "Yes?" Good, still awake.
            "How do you feel about making a TPM for the kids one night this week?"
            "Are you kidding? Where would we get the ingredients?"
            "From Farms 'R' Us or something ... we could drive there ... go on a Sunday and take the kids. They'd get a kick out of seeing vegetables being pulled from the earth."
            "It's too far. And they've seen umpteen-million school documentaries about this. And had all those vegetable-growing-simulations ... in three-D."
            "Let's try it anyway. Okay? I'd like them to see what it was like when we were kids."
            "Where would we find the time? Every night we have Interactive TV meetings, clubs, discussions. My personal trainer is hard enough to schedule without getting backed up. Maybe sometime in the future. On vacation. We could visit one of those Traditional Food Making villages and see how they used to do it."
            Too late in the evening to insist. With a sigh you uncover the Sleep Inducer. You set the Alpha Rhythm to High for a change, and press. Quality sleep, the best sleep you've had in weeks follows.

Kindle Series No. 2: First impressions after borrowing one.

I let the Kindle sit, fairly glowing, on the mantle ...

November 2, 2010
Hugh Gilmore

Kindling Bovary

            I finished reading "Freedom" on Friday night, spurred to read a lengthy final section by the desire to try the Kindle loaned me by a fellow member of the Chestnut Hill Book Festival.
            As I mentioned last week, Franzen's tale of a dull-but-kindly husband and his yearning, adulterous wife, reminded me of Flaubert's "Madame Bovary." I wanted to reread that story and also wanted to see what it was like to read a book on a Kindle electronic reader.
            Downloading "Madame Bovary" took about 90 seconds and cost 99 cents. Pretty impressive. I learned how to read from the Kindle in about another minute and that aspect of its simplicity impressed me too. After that, I closed the cover, and let the Kindle sit, fairly glowing, on the mantle while I buried my nose in "Freedom" and finished it around 1:00 a.m. Saturday morning.
            On Saturday night, I got in bed, propped myself in reading position, and pushed in sequence three little Kindle buttons that opened the world of "Madame Bovary" to me once again.
            My reactions next week.

Kindle Series No. 1: Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your Kindle (?)

What I need to know is, can the Kindle deliver a book like "Madame Bovary"
into the hands of the next generations?
October 27, 2010 
By Hugh Gilmore

            Is anyone willing to trust me with his or her Kindle for a few days so I can test-drive it? I'm serious. And I'd be willing to mention you in a future column (in a positive way, too!) as the "kind person who trusted me to borrow his/her Kindle" so I can see what it's like to read an entire book on an electronic device. I'll also mention anything else you'd like said about yourself ("great smile," for example, or even "avid reader").
            I don't want to buy one just yet because they're still rather pricey and I'd hate to find out that I don't like reading that way. I am open-minded on the subject, however, and want to give it a try. It would be fabulous if you've got a downloaded copy of "Madame Bovary" also, because I developed a yen this week to reread that book, probably last read by me almost 20 years ago. But I'd pay for a Bovary download if necessary. 
            The notion that I should read a serious and time-tested literary masterpiece on a Kindle came about in this way: I've accepted that a high-adrenalin book, a thriller or mystery, would be easy to get through on a Kindle because of their "and then" type of plots. But, what about a quiet, contemplative, deeply serious book? Would that be readable when squooshed into the confines of a small electronic screen?            
            How about a sentence like this, from "Madame Bovary: "... no one can ever express the exact measure of his needs, or conceptions, or sorrows. The human language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out a tune for a dancing bear, when we would wish with our music to move the stars." I'd like to know if I could comfortably read a passage like that on a Kindle and feel as though I'd just fallen through into outer space, as I did the first time I read those words. 
            I'm not, believe me, trying to set this up so that Kindle will fail my expectations. If the medium is capable of carrying any message, as books are, I'll be delighted. I'll feel I've added a tool to my reading kit.
            Now, as to why this subject has come up at this time. Like all great, international, historic issues, this question arises from a small domestic scene. Which is: nearly every time I pass my son's room (Andrew is 24), he is looking at a computer screen. I don't stop and bother him; I simply sigh a bit and feel a twinge. The next time we are alone, taking a car ride somewhere, for example, I ask in as innocent a fashion as I can: "So, are you reading anything lately?"
            "Not right now," he says. "There are a couple of things I want to start soon though."
            "Oh," I say, "well, that's good. I'd like to hear about them when you get around to reading them."
            All very vague. Like all parents. I wish my child would read more. There's nothing more reassuring than the sight of your child curled up with a book. That blankety-blank computer, and those darned iPods are destroying the minds of our nation's young people. That's what I think usually.
            But then, one day, I thought, Well, what is he's doing when he's staring at that screen? He doesn't play games. He's reading. And he's taking in information. In his case, the content most often concerns the history of some aspect of American entertainment: humor, jazz, vaudeville, early recording equipment, always set within the historical events that affected their form and content. (For example, Patriotic songs of World War I, or, pre-Hays code cartoons and the length of Betty Boop's skirts).
            About a week ago I walked by Andrew's room and had a sudden realization. If he were sitting reading the same information from a book I'd feel happy. Followed by the question, So, what's more important: that he have a book under his nose, or that he's driven to learn about a subject he's interested in? Even if the information comes from an electronic screen?
            My reluctance to accept the electronic book must be equivalent to the head shaking people did when automobiles replaced horses. No more dainty, reassuring, clip-clops as folks pass by outside the window. Just the dismal roar of the future whizzing past.
            So, yes, okay, I'm certainly happily served by computers now and I'm comfortable with them. And I accept that e-publishing is very soon going to nearly eradicate print publishing. And I imagine it must be pleasurable to read a best seller on an electronic reading device. Those of us who grew up loving the feel and smell and sight of printed books will murmur and yearn nostalgically to the end of our days, but what's coming is coming. Ours will also be the last generation to say we remember being children and seeing horse-drawn carts delivering milk. And holding new books in our hands.
            So be it. But what I need to know is, can the Kindle deliver a book like "Madame Bovary" into the hands of the next generations?
            I'm willing to find out if one of you will lend me your Kindle for a few days.



C'mere boy, this won't hurt a bit: A bullfighting aficionado waves the cape at me

 We were just two guys with more time behind them than ahead ...
March 16, 2011  

By Hugh Gilmore

I'm sitting at my desk at three in the afternoon -- this is last Wednesday, the day the Local comes out -- and the phone rings. I pick up.
   "You really think bullfighting should be banned? Is that really your opinion? You given a lot of thought to this?"
    Who starts a phone call without saying hello? This has to be one of my friends kidding around. The voice is gravelly, but kind of friendly.
            He goes on, "What would you rather be: a fighting bull, you live for four or five years pampered, nice easy life, and then you go out in a blaze of glory, have a chance to defend yourself? Or live for a year and a half as a dairy cow and then get slaughtered?"
            Whoa. I don't like words like 'slaughter' spoken by strangers in the first minute of a, so far, anonymous conversation. And I just realized that what I thought was friendly in his tone was really just a mid-western accent.
            I said, "I'll be glad to talk about this, but you should identify yourself."
            "I'm Jerry McMurphy (2nd name a pseudonym I've assigned him) calling from southern California. Do you really think bullfighting should be banned? Why? You think it hurts the animals, eh? Animal cruelty. Man you don't understand, these toreros love the animals. They love them. There's such respect. You ever seen a bullfight? Live?"
            "Not yet."
            "Man, I was to 24 corridas last year, up and down Spain. Every feria (festival) we went to was capped off with a corrida. Amazing. I've seen some beautiful bullfights."
            "So you're a real aficionado?" I said.
            "Oh god, yeah, have been since 1966, I've done the whole eight days at Pamplona, I've been up and down that country. Madrid, Barcelona, Seville, even in southern France, Portugal, Mexico City. All over. I met James Michener back in '66 when he was researching his book "Iberia." He based a character on me."
            By now I was very excited and enjoying this conversation. The column he'd read ("Running from Hemingway's Bull, Part 3," March 9) described my enthusiasm to learn about bullfighting for a novel I'm writing. As an aside I'd written that despite bullfighting's occasional grace and beauty it was cruel and should be banned.
             In this telephone conversation though, I had no interest in getting into a fruitless debate about whether animals felt pain. Of course they do. Pain evolved to tell creatures to get the hell away from whatever was causing them the pain. And just because some people had found a way to make a mysterious, aesthetic ritual out of handicapping a competition, that didn't mean the animal felt pain any the less. And the animal is not there by choice.
            But what I said was, "What ferias have you been to? Who have you seen fight?"
            And oh, he was a fountain of information. He told me I should read Kenneth Tynan's "Bull Fever," if I wanted an inside-the-game view. That the perfect bulls come from the Victorino Ranch. That we live today in the "golden age of bullfighting." Unlike the old days when the emphasis was on simply having the courage to kill, today's fights were all about the "prep."
            And each thing he said was a thrill for me to hear because all the words he was using and ideas he was expressing had merely been words on the printed page before he called. Now I was hearing the words pronounced correctly. I was hearing fine distinctions made about concepts I didn't quite understand just from my reading. The information was coming alive.
            From watching YouTube I knew a few matadors of today. "Have you seen Alejandro Talavante?" I asked.
            "He's good, yes, I've seen him. But I'd put him in my top nine, as number nine. My absolute favorite, the best in the world today is Jose Tomas. Then there's Enrique Ponce. He's so perfect, he's too perfect many people say. There's also El Juli."
            I said, "I'm trying to get into the head of this bullfighter character I'm writing. Do you think these toreros you mentioned care about the so-called artistry of bullfighting, really care?"
            "Oh god, yes. You've got to see this one matador, Morante de la Puebla. He's the epitome of the brooding artist. And my own personal favorite along those dramatic lines, Miguel Pererra."
            And on and on we went for an hour. By now, his angry edge was gone; we were just two guys with more time behind them than ahead. An incredible amount of forgiveness goes into that equation when men talk. I was willing to be the pupil if he was willing to be the teacher. I felt as though I were passing some elementary test, given at the end of the first weeks of study. But I needed to satisfy my curiosity about another simple matter.
             "Say, Jerry, how did my article came to your attention?"
            He growled, "There's a website, Mundo Taurino. The world of bulls and bullfighting. It picks up stories from all around the world. I linked to you from there. You should subscribe. Oh, and yeah, there's a group in England that publishes an English-language quarterly. They're called Club Taurino of London. You should join."
            A few more interchanges and then I was being called to dinner. "Jerry, a final question before I go," I said.
            "What's that?"
            "What prompted you to actually pick up the phone and call? What did you want to get out of calling me?"
            "Ah, I don't know. Probably just to say "Eff you" or something along those lines."
            "You mind if I call you if I have questions?"
            He hemmed and hawed a bit, but gave me his home, and, after another pause, his cell numbers.
            "What the hell," he said, "I'm an old retired guy. I got nothing better to do."
            PS. I joined Club Taurino of London on Friday. The next time they have their monthly Thursday night dinner I might just fly over and drink some manzanilla (like Carmen, et al.) with them. And possibly rub epaulettes with that "brooding artiste" Morante de la Puebla or whoever the guest is. "Hate the sin, love the sinner" or something.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Catching up to Hemingway's bull. Part 3: Trying to get Inside the mind of a bullfighter

March 9, 2011   
Time for a little mano a mano with Papa
By Hugh Gilmore 

I take long walks every day trying to understand Escamillo, the torero from Georges Bizet's "Carmen." I'm trying to write a novel about his love affair with Carmen but I don't have the feel of him yet. I can't see him. I don't know whether I'm outside him, watching and waiting to see what he'll do and say, or inside him, feeling his pain, thinking his thoughts. Sometimes in life all problems are point of view problems.
            In the meantime I walk around, look at the trees and sky, smell the green earth coming back to life, and wait with an open heart for the solution to crawl inside me and lock the door behind it. The "click."
             Also, I must do background research. On so many subjects I feel overwhelmed. Spanish culture in 1875, for example. There's a small topic, eh? And Bizet's "Carmen," inside and out. And, of course, bullfighting. I'm not sure if this book will be worth the effort. And time -- I have many other books I'd rather write.
            Escamillo's a mystery to me. I do know that he has retired from the bullring. And like any man, he must have been formed and scarred by his occupation. His work history must shape his reactions to the world. But how? What does he know that a lawyer or tavern keeper or teacher cannot know? And vice-versa, of course: in what ways is he ignorant. For all the bloodshed he has seen, in what ways has he led a sheltered life? What facts of life does he not know? I want to write a story that concludes with knowledge attained. Is that not the goal of all good literature?
            These questions will sort themselves out as I go along. There's another kind of knowledge I need right here and now: what is a bullfight? What are its rules? How is it conducted? How do men cheat at it? That would be good to know, wouldn't it? Men everywhere cheat at everything. How is this sport kept honest? It is a "sport," isn't it? If it is, or isn't, does it matter? Some say it is theater. Others say ritual. Others, barbarism.
            For several months I've been reading books about bullfighting. Despite my limited Spanish, I've been learning its vocabulary, its history, its technicalities, and its rationale. I've rented both documentary and fictional movies about bullfighting. I've watched about a hundred clips from YouTube. For a gringo, marooned here on the Chestnut Hill Peninsula, I've learned a lot. And I conscientiously avoided reading Ernest Hemingway on bullfighting.
            When I was young and a fan and determined to read through all of Ernest Hemingway, I simply could not read through "Death in the Afternoon" nor its sequel, "The Dangerous Summer." Those are his two major writings on the subject. But two weeks ago I wondered if I'd be missing something important if I didn't try again, so I found copies, and last week I read them both.
            It is with very mixed feelings I tell you that these two books are terrific. From the very first pages of "Death in the Afternoon" I felt I had found the ingredient, the perspective, the eye for detail I had been fruitlessly searching for as I read the more objective and historical explanations of the "corrida." In my youth I lacked the vocabulary and knowledge of the rules needed to understand Hemingway's bullfighting books.  
            Hemingway wrote for those who already knew the corrida. He wrote as a baseball writer, for example, does. He assumes you know what a curveball is and why a pitcher would throw one and that you can appreciate the nerve it takes to throw one with a 3-2 count and bases loaded and two out in the ninth inning of a tie ball game. Everyone enjoys home runs but only those with knowledge get to enjoy the inner game.
            Hemingway was very well respected in Spain, especially in bullfighting circles. Or so it seems. It's possible he had such intimate access (he traveled with the famed Antonio Ordonez, for example, and often watched the fights from the barrera, (the wooden fence that encircles the ring) because the athletes' vanity was stroked by having a famous writer describe their exploits. The Howard Cosell factor.
            Whatever the case, I very much enjoyed both books. If anyone reading this knows of other, detailed, insider books about bullfighting I'd be grateful to know about them.
            I did not enjoy Hemingway's mystical side, his constant need to find the "art" in bullfighting. And I did not enjoy the stupidity of his classifying every creature in the ring -- whether two- or four-legged -- as either "brave" or "cowardly." Taunting death is not brave and respecting the brief lives of our fellow creatures is not cowardly.
            Bullfighting is sometimes exciting, sometimes graceful and artistic, and always cruel, degrading, and indefensible. It should be banned.
            I realize my attitude presents quite a barrier to getting a grip on my character. I'm hoping that what I lack in understanding bullfighting I can make up for in understanding love. 
            Equally dangerous undertakings, wouldn't you say?

Friday, March 11, 2011

On The Hundred Books Aspired (to) Yearly Club -- My first post

January 1, 2006       
“Happy as a mushroom collector bounding from the stables, I come to spread the joys of discoveries in Book Land.” (ibid).

            Every January 1 I vow to read a hundred books in the coming year. That sounds like a lot of books to me and seems wonderfully counter-cultural. After all, we live in a country that encourages us to do everything but read books, especially serious books (books that can’t be read while listening to television, radio, CDs, DVDs, streaming websites, instant-messaging or  iPoding). Some very big businesses spend millions of dollars annually hiring experts to kneecap anyone who’s selfishly set aside time for peace of mind. Their ethos demands that any brain corrugations not currently being hammered smooth by an advertisement are wasting space. And any mind that is already occupied by an advertisement should be distracted away from that advertisement to listen to a more determined predator’s advertisement for his manufactures.  Books are products that don’t allow for simultaneous use of other products (except among students) and, hence, time spent with them is time stolen from the national mission of nudging the Dow Jones heavenward.  So, we get ads and counter-ads all day long, every day, everywhere we turn our eyes and ears. All determined to steal our time and money, our minds and souls.

And so on . . . “Big fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite them, and little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum.” (Jonathan Swift, 1733, words later echoed by the dead-too-soon comedian, Bill Hicks, who asked during a stand-up routine, “Anyone here in marketing? Would you raise your hands? Okay, thank you. Now, go kill yourself. I’m serious, go kill yourself. You’re ruining the world for the rest of us. So, please, leave. Right now. Kill yourselves.”)

Given today’s world, I’d compare reading a hundred books in a year to a 1000-yard rushing season, or hitting a baseball at a .300 clip. Nice round numbers that speak of dedication and commitment. To some people, professors perhaps, or 100,000 mile frequent flyers, or mystery readers even, 100 books may seem like a piffling few, but let’s just ignore these pituitary giants and keep reaching for an attainable number.

(And by the way, professors must read out of fear of being turned on by the rest of the pack if they show a knowledge or opinion gap. They are said to be able to actually smell such weakness. And I suspect frequent flyers read mostly because OxyContin is too expensive and dauntingly illegal. And as for mystery readers: they read more than any other category of reader mostly because they’re addicted to the adrenalin-pumping side effects. They have to shoot up daily. I know people who read at least one of those contrivances a day and I’m sure there must be others who need even bigger boosts.)

That said, I must turn the flashlight around and shine it in my own face. Full disclosure: last year I finished only 82 books. I touched well over that number, but actually read only 82 cover-to-cover. And the year before, 2005: I read only 78. In 2004: 74. Not quite the ace you may have thought I thought I was. And I’ll tell you why, honestly, and I won’t try any of that “A man’s reach must exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for” stuff. The answer is simple. And insidious: Comcast Cable.

Three years ago I bought a beautiful flat-screen TV and touch-toned that 800 number they’d begged me to call for years. Till then I’d laughed at their mailings, “Look, another invitation from Comcast. Ha Ha Ha.” Rip Rip Rip. Read read read.

Then 9/11 happened and I wanted to see the television reports. And then the USA went to war in Iraq and I wanted to see that too. And sports, of course. But I wanted to SEE them see them. TV reception is lousy in Chestnut Hill, despite our lofty status as the highest point above sea level in Philadelphia (Summit Street - 200 and something feet).

After several trips to Best Buy and other such places, and after trying many hinky rabbit ear antennas, and after many wasted foot-tapping AOL dial-up internet moments (Hours! If you want to use Ebay), I humbly made the cable call. All three TV’s in the house, and all three computers, charged as a tidy little monthly bundle costing more than twice the take-home pay of my first grown-up job. Instead of seven channels of crap, I rented 188 channels of crap. But the reception is great!

I am not a daytime book reader. Magazines, yes. Newspapers, yes. Menus: yes, yes! But, book time is nighttime for wild guys like me. And here’s what happened: Evening news, then Jeopardy! We’re now at 7:30 p.m. Comcast gives you (and me, alas) every Phillies and Sixers home game. And they start around 7 o’clock. Just take a peek to check the score – while finishing the newspaper, or a magazine article … badda bing! It’s 9:30. I like to be asleep by 10:30 or 11:00. I read about 50 pages and hour, maybe. A 300 page book takes about five or six days. Badda bing! It’s December 31 and I’ve only got 70 or 80 books on my reading list! You tell me, Mr. Soprano, but am I missing something here? Is it just me, or does somethin’ gotta give here?

Okay, Okay, I know you get the point. So, from now on, the time between when I stop working for the day and the time I go to sleep is not going to be wasted (as much).

If you want to join me in the Hundred Books Aspired (to)Yearly Club, I welcome you. Just so you don’t try to talk me when I have a book in my hands. (Okay, YES, I’m married and I know what talk-magnets books in spouses’ hands are, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, etc.).

Oh, yes, I’m getting near the end of this page and my crayon is nearly ground down, so: To the Point! In this column I’ll be discussing ways to avoid the spike-strips thrown in our HBA(t)YC way. And I’ll be addressing the hardest question of all when it comes to reading: What’s fun to read, and maybe even worth reading? That question-and-a-half is the true genesis of this column. I’ve read some wonderful books in recent years and want to tell the world (aka Chestnut Hill - you’ve seen the Steinberg cartoon where he mistook New York for Chestnut Hill? ) about them.

My prejudices first:  I read mostly nonfiction, but try to make at least every third book fiction because I owe the fiction writers of the world an enormous, unpayable debt for all the pleasure they’ve given me. 

In nonfiction, I read almost anything I call a ‘backstage’ book about an occupation, profession, mission, caper, crime, quest, tryst, or just plain dirty rotten shame. Among history books I prefer first-person accounts by people directly involved, either as perpetrators, victims, or witnesses. Books must be personal to draw me. I love survival books. I nearly OD’d on true crime a few years back, but make exceptions now and then.

In reading fiction, I tend to count on serendipity, stumbling into someone in the dark and sharing a bottle with him while I listen to his story. Yes, ‘him.’ When I’m wandering through lists or libraries I tend to choose male authors telling stories about males, but I do brake for good female writers when they’re pointed out to me. More on all this in future pieces. . .  .